WASHINGTON — During her childhood in southern Mississippi, Sarah Hostetler of Washington used to watch multitudes of monarch butterflies traveling through their migration corridor on their way to their winter homes in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Hundreds of millions of the butterflies would pass through a very small area of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and Hostetler recalls looking forward to seeing an airborne river of black and orange flowing through the area each year. Unfortunately, the monarch butterfly is currently at serious risk of becoming extinct.

“There are two reasons that monarchs have become endangered,” said Hostetler.  “One reason is environmental degradation in Mexico, where they spend the winter. The other is the loss of milkweed along their migration corridor through the continental United States. Illinois is a major part of that migration corridor, so the loss of milkweed in Illinois is catastrophic for the butterflies. Milkweed is critical for butterflies because as caterpillars, they need to eat milkweed specifically to build up defenses from predators later in life. The adult butterflies also need flowers to produce pollen, and native wildflowers are particularly effective for that purpose.”

Hostetler conceived the idea of setting aside a part of Washington’s Meadow Valley Park as a natural habitat for butterflies and other pollinators such as honeybees. The Washington Park District supported the project with funding, equipment and has reserved a plot of between one and two acres for the pollinator area. Environmental protection groups like Pheasants Forever and the Central Illinois Monarch Task Force have donated money and have volunteered to help clear the portion of the park that will be given over to the planting of milkweed, wildflowers, and native grasses. Members of the Student Association for the Environment (SAFE) at Illinois Central College have also volunteered to help with the project, and Hostetler’s husband, Charles, who works in wildlands restoration as a senior program manager at PDC Technical Services in Peoria, has signed on as a technical consultant for the project.

“The project is off to a great start,” he said. “The Washington Park District has already mowed the area we’re going to clear and plant, and has also started pruning back some of the trees.”

“I’ve been amazed by how every person I’ve talked to about this project has been so interested, receptive, and excited about this idea,” said Hostetler. “I think the community is ready for this project and enthusiastic about it. The park district has been more than receptive. Pheasants Forever, the Central Illinois Monarch Task Force, and the students from SAFE have been extremely supportive from the start.”

The Washington Park District has fervently backed Hostetler’s proposal through funding, providing park land for the future pollinator area, supplying equipment, and beginning the process of clearing the meadow. However, the Park District cannot complete the entire project on its own, and Hostetler is looking for volunteers to help clear the meadow on Sept. 9.

“We’re hoping to get the meadow cleared by the end of summer, and we’re hoping to seed in late November,” she said. “Many of the native seeds need to go through a winter to grow properly in the spring. As I understand it, it takes about three years for a wild garden like the one that’s planned to reach its full fruition.”

Once the wild garden has been fully established, it will still need some tending because it will essentially be an island in a sea of non-native plants which could invade the meadow and proliferate. Hostetler believes that the planned pollinator area will have several benefits not only for the local environment, but also for area residents.

 “I hope people in the community of Washington are as excited about this project as I am, and that the butterfly garden will develop the way I expect it to,” said Hostetler. “Hopefully, there will be walking trails around the area, and maybe through the middle. Maybe there can be a teaching area where kids can learn about what’s going on with the native species growing there. It will be both beautiful and educational. People will be able to see what this part of Illinois looked like before it was given over to farmland, and it will be a really pretty place to just take a walk.”